I bought my Amazon Echo on its official UK release back in September last year. I wrote about it at the time, but I thought it might be worth checking back in here to see exactly how I’m using it. Right off the top, I’ll note here that I use Alexa multiple times a day, every day.
The first thing I’ll detail is how I have my Echo(s) setup. My original Echo sits in my living room. In fact it rests fairly close to the television. But interestingly, because of the direction of the TV speakers, the Echo will still hear me even with the TV on in many cases.
But more recently I also bought an Echo Dot to go in my bedroom. I have a very old hifi system there which still sounds amazing and has a single Aux socket. Until buying the Dot, I had a Chromecast Audio device dangling from the socket, since Chromecast serves most of my audio needs. I keep music on Google Play Music, and apps like iPlayer Radio and PocketCasts both support Chromecast.
I was faced with a dilemma when I got the Dot though. I wanted the audio from that to come through my speakers as well, but I obviously didn’t want to be plugging and unplugging wires every time I wanted to switch device. A single Aux socket, with the device permanently switched to that presented a problem.
The solution was a small mixer. This might seem like overkill, but it allows you to plug two (or more) audio sources into a single auxiliary socket and hear audio from both sources at the same time. So I can play music from Google Play Music via Chromecast, while also checking the weather via the Echo Dot. The only downside is some extra kit (and attendant audio cables), and that my mixer has quite bright LEDs (I used some LightDims tape to darken them. Yes, they are expensive, but I’ve used them on a couple of gadgets around the house).
With two Echo devices, it’s interesting to see them work together. If I stand in my hallway, I’m within range of both the Echo in living room, and Dot in the bedroom. But the two Echo devices decide between themselves which one should handle the request, and the other will go silent. In practice, this means I don’t actually have to worry which device I speak to.
I’d be tempted to get a further device for my kitchen where I have a very decent DAB and BlueTooth equipped radio. A fullsize Echo feels like overkill, yet a Dot really needs an auxiliary speaker to function. We’ll have to see. And as I said in my original review, the sound from the Echo itself isn’t great, in that it’s not the best standalone Bluetooth speaker ever. It’s slightly perverse that my much cheaper Echo sounds so much better because audio from it is passed to a decent pair of speakers with good stereo separation. So music does sound good on it.
But how about some specific use cases?
There’s no getting away that the Alexa environment is fantastic for listening to the radio. It’s just so easy to say “Alexa, play Radio 4” or “Alexa, Play 6 Music” and hear the station at a moment’s notice. As I mentioned previously, the default radio service is TuneIn, and it can very occasionally get muddled, but in general terms it works well. I installed the RadioPlayer “skill” (adding “skills” is the means to adding specific additional functionality to Alexa, and something done through the Alexa app or website), but it’s unquestionably more wordy to say something like, “Alexa, ask RadioPlayer to play Absolute Radio.” Yet, it is more likely to work.
At the weekend I asked Alexa to play TalkSport during a football match, and for some reason I got what I assume is TalkSport’s ex-UK streaming feed via TuneIn since it didn’t contain football. Going via RadioPlayer fixed it, although then I went back to the default TuneIn version and that seemed to be working too. Strange.
One thing you don’t seem to be able to do is simulcast radio (or other music) throughout your home on multiple Alexa devices. So if I start listening to the radio in my bedroom, I can’t seamlessly continue listening in my living room. I can start up a stream there, but it will be out of sync. In essence I have to stop the bedroom stream and start a living room stream.
I’m not aware that I can stream the same music throughout the home either. On the other hand Google Chrome does allow this, by creating groups of speakers you can send a single audio source to. And of course, this is famously a major selling point of Sonos.
I think that these Voice User Interface controlled devices will undoubtedly drive additional radio listening, since tuning into a station is so easy. But there is the qualifier that people need to know and remember your service in the first place. My DABs radios at home receive upwards of 120 radio services, and I can’t remember them all. I can browse them fairly easily though, and I might stumble upon something I like, similar to the way you might scan through stations in a car. With Alexa, you need to know what you want in the first place. That favours big brands.
This is the real game-changer for me. I have a Hue Bridge and bulbs, controlling the lighting in my hallway and living room, and it’s still wonderful to get Alexa to turn lights on and off. Hue allows you to group lights together as “rooms” or groups of rooms. For my set-up I have two lights in the “Hall,” and three in the “Living Room.” Together they are know as the “Flat.” But I do need to annunciate properly to get them to work. If I drop the “H” on “Hall” (I’m a north Londoner after all), it won’t work. Sometimes I concatenate “Flat lights” to “Flatlights” and that won’t work either. I just have to moderate my voice a little. But overall it’s wonderful.
Alarms and Timers
I realise that I’m using some very expensive technology to do something that a £5 Casio watch is quite capable of, but it’s still really nice to be able to say just before settling down at night, “Set alarm for 7am.” And for cooking you can just shout, “Set timer for 20 minutes” when you slam the oven door shut on something. I confess that it was actually an Apple Siri advert that made me realise I could do this!
I will admit that I’ve asked it on more than one occasion what the time is. Yes, I wear a watch. But no, it’s not always on my wrist. And when you’re rushing around in the morning, barking out a command to Alexa is surprisingly useful.
I use Alexa’s weather forecasting all the time. “What’s the weather?” “What’s the weather tomorrow?” Yes I have weather apps on the homescreen of my phone. And breakfast radio and TV is full of weather forecasts. But it’s nice to have, and it’s highly localised.
The only issue I had was with my precise location. In the app, you enter a postcode and that determines your location. I live in a town, but five miles up the road from me is a tiny village. For whatever reason, Alexa was convinced I lived in that village. Now the weather in both places will be identical, but having Alexa say, “The weather in Botany Bay is 5 degrees…” was just annoying. I ended up giving an alternative local postcode to get it to say the name of my town correctly.
I use Alexa a certain amount to give me the news headlines. There is now a reasonable selection of news in there from the default Sky News, to a selection of BBC national and World Service offerings.
The one thing I would say is that not everyone wants quite the same type of news. There is a world of difference between Radio 1’s Newsbeat and a BBC World Service summary. While at the moment, there is a reasonable range of offerings (try BBC Minute for something a little different), in audio terms, one size doesn’t fit all.
Sport remains a real shortcoming for the Alexa environment. When I first got my Echo, I was shocked to discover that the only British teams I could add as favourites were English Premier League clubs. What’s more, the only data that Amazon seemed to be taking was from the Premier League. No other clubs or competitions existed. And while we’re at, no other sport existed either.
Even very recently, when I looked again, there were no Championship sides, Scottish Premier League sides, or indeed anyone outside of the 20 clubs in the Premier League.
Looking today, I see that finally Amazon has added additional football clubs. A quick search suggests that there’s a pretty full range of football clubs that can be selected – right down to some non-league sides. But it still seems to be an exclusively football selection. I couldn’t find any cricket, rugby union or rugby league sides. I can’t find a favourite tennis player, an F1 team or track and field athlete either. Amazon at least needs to add other major UK team spots to Alexa to give a proper rounded offering.
They do at least seem to have more data sources that they subscribe to. I can get the latest Champions’ League scores for example – something that was missing back in September when I first bought the device.
A lot of work still required, and therefore I mostly rely on apps to deliver me accurate and up to date sports scores.
Oddly enough, despite this being a killer application of Alexa, it’s probably the functionality that I’ve used least. You can choose from “My Music Library”, “Prime Music” and “Spotify” as music sources (curiously, they also list TuneIn in the app), while you can also have “Amazon Music Unlimited” (Amazon’s Spotify competitor) if you subscribe to it. Despite lots of imploring to give it a test-ride, and the ability to get a cheaper subscription for a single Echo device, I’ve not bothered. Similarly I only very rarely use the free Spotify service. My music is stored in the cloud on Google Play Music, and locally on a NAS drive. As a result, I mostly use Google Play Music via a Chromecast device to listen at home.
That said, I’ll occasionally try something from Amazon’s “Prime Music” offering. The problem is that I simply don’t know what’s in the Prime music catalogue and what isn’t. So rather than be disappointed, I’ll look elsewhere.
It’s worth noting that “My Music Library” is largely made up of any music you’ve bought via Amazon as either digital tracks or auto-ripped CDs. You are also able to upload a 250 tracks from iTunes which hardly feels generous. I can add a quarter of a million more for a further £21.99 a year. I’d be tempted were it not for the fact that Google lets me store 50,000 tracks free of charge.
The other thing to consider is that you need to know what you want to hear to launch it. That means remembering an artist, or playing a favourite playlist. It’s not so great for discovering new music or exploring the outer reaches of a music collection.
I found it to be a fairly painless process to pair my smartphone with my Echo, and it will usefully let you switch that connection on and off by voice. “Connect to device,” or “Disconnect from device” will do the trick. The only thing I’m not sure about is how many devices you can set-up to be connected to an Echo, and more importantly can you make sure the right device is connected?
The advantage of having this connection of course is that audio that won’t work with Alexa can be played through its speaker. In general terms, I’ll still use Chromecast ahead of Alexa for this, especially since the speakers I have my Chromecast dongles plugged into, sound much better. But it’s nice to be able to connect.
Alexa is keen to get you to detail your commute so that it can provide travel information. But by default, it assumes that a “commute” is a car journey, and the only information it will give you relating to said commute is traffic information. That’s great if your commute is a drive, but useless if you use public transport.
The National Rail skill is an essential add-on for me. While navigating it to work out a specific train journey can be difficult, it is fairly straightforward to set up a commute. This results in me being able to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gives me details of the next two trains (with more available) from my local station.
There are also third party tube skills to allow you to check the status of your preferred London Underground line, and I’ve recently used Bus Stop which also uses the Transport for London API to query my local bus stop. Every London bus now has GPS and every stop a unique code meaning that TfL can generate real-time data for when your next bus will be at your nominated stop. Again, useful for timing departure from your home.
Now it’s not as though there aren’t mobile apps and websites that can give me all this data, but in the morning when you’re rushing around trying to leave on time for work, the voice interface is perfect for giving you up-to-date information.
In truth, I don’t use Alexa for podcasts. It’s not that it won’t play them. It will. However the selection is based on what TuneIn supplies. But for my personal use, I need an interface with PocketCasts which is my preferred podcasting app. I have both the Android and web apps, and between them, they keep me in sync with what I have and haven’t listened to. I can pause a podcast on my mobile app, and pick-up on a laptop. For me to use a podcast app on Alexa, it would need to take account of all of that.
If PocketCasts were to build an Amazon skill then I’d be there. But PocketCasts is paid-for software, and I’m not sure whether currently Amazon Skills can be sold, or whether the developer is working on something.
I do wish the Alexa app was better. It’s slow to load – perhaps because it’s checking to see whether it’s in range of devices or not. And some key functionality is buried a little deep within the menu structure. For example, to change news sources, you have to go into the Settings. It’s not a top level menu item.
The addition of IFTTT was nice, and opens up a wealth of potential. However, so far, I’ve not used it properly on my device.
There are a number of really bad skills that you can install, and Amazon probably needs to do a slightly better job in highlighting useful skills and downgrading poor ones with limited functionality, often feeling like they’re the result of people hacking together personal tests.
Amazon sends out a weekly email newsletter highlighting new skills or phrases to try. Sometimes these are themed, or include jokes, which is fun. The reality is that you will get more out of Alexa the more time you spend with it. You need to recall specific key words and phrases to get the desired results. It can be frustrating if you forget how to do something.
The key to having a good experience is for Alexa to respond in an appropriate manner to your request. If you have to think too hard about how to frame a question for Alexa, then you won’t do it.
It would be nice if Alexa had a more flattened structure. Currently it seems to work with a number of base level skills built in, but for more complex requirements you have to remember to invoke a particular skill.
So if I ask, “Alexa, how’s my commute,” it will ask me to set up my drive to work. I then have to remember to say, “Alexa, ask National Rail about my commute,” which gets me the response I wanted.
I’d like Alexa to intelligently realise that I invoke the National Rail skill far more than the similar sounding built in skill, and to therefore answer me with what I really wanted. Think of it as a kind of audio auto-complete.
And Alexa needs to understand context a bit better. If I’ve just asked one thing, then the next question might be in response to the answer I’ve just received. Outside of specific skills, Alexa treats most questions in complete isolation. Google Home does seem to achieve this better, allowing you to string a series of questions and answers together in a more natural manner. Speaking of which…
We know that Google Home’s UK launch is around the corner. In many respects, from demos I’ve seen and from what I’ve read, the skillset of Google and Amazon’s devices are actually very similar. The difference is perhaps the backbone of Google Assistant which lies behind Google’s voice interface. It can use everything Google already knows about me to deliver more personalised responses. Google has a distinct advantage here. It already knows my football teams, the locations I travel to, the news I want to follow and my appointments calendar.
Furthermore, I’ve invested in the Chromecast ecosystem, and have my music on Google’s servers (Although I don’t pay for Google Play Music Unlimited, and as a consequence, frustratingly I don’t get all their playlists built around the technology they bought from Songza. This, despite that being available to US users.).
Maybe in time, I will transition across to Google? Google Assistant will be built into future devices. Whether it comes to my HTC10 (now running Nougat) I’m not sure. But I’m led to believe it will be coming to the Nvidia Shield which I use for a lot of streaming. But always listening microphones do come at a power cost, and excess battery power is not something many phones have right now.
What I do know is that I’m satisfied where I am at the moment, and Amazon’s technology works well, some specific shortcomings notwithstanding.
Do I have privacy concerns with all of this? Absolutely. If it were shown that either Amazon or Google was uploading audio outside of when I specifically asked it a question, then it would be leaving my home instantly. But they seem to have been good to their word thus far.
As I was finishing up writing this piece, I read two separate pieces from writers who think Alexa has been oversold: a very contrary view from a Forbes writer, and another from Quartz. Both writers are frustrated that Alexa isn’t smarter than it currently is, that it can’t understand language better, and that generally is should be better out of the box. Another complaint is that Alexa doesn’t handle context too well, and that you have to utilise skills properly to get the best out of Alexa. I agree with both writers on some issues, but to my mind Alexa is extraordinary out of the box. It’s certainly not a “glorified clock radio” as the Quartz writer puts it. It will clearly get better over time.
Addressing a couple of specific concerns: I’ve certainly had no issues with transport details – I use the separate skills that I noted above. More importantly I’ve not ordered nor accidentally ordered anything so far from Amazon with the Alexa. In fact, I’m not convinced that it’s a terribly useful way to do shopping aside from a few staples – the kind of things I’m unlikely to use Amazon for regardless (Grocery shopping on Amazon in the UK really isn’t a great experience just yet, and I’ve got better options using a UK supermarket to fulfill such shopping).
Terms like Artificial Intelligence (AI) get bandied around far too much right now, when what they really mean is that the business is adopting algorithms to help with personalisation and the like. But beyond that, there is machine learning or deep learning, and that is meant when the term “AI” is used. But this isn’t AI as in the Spielberg film – autonomous thinking robots or whatever.
However the deep learning techniques do mean that speech recognition is improving in leaps and bounds, and the current range of devices should grow with it. The Echo, after all, is broadly speaking a speaker, some microphones, and an internet connection. While some work is done locally, the heavy lifting is in the cloud. These things will improve.
Five months in, and I’m very happy with Alexa, and use it a lot.